The Theosophical Society in America

Alchemy of Gender

Printed in the  Fall 2018  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation:  Mayer, Gwynne"Alchemy of Gender" Quest 106:4, pg 10-11


By Gwynne Mayer

The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, no knowing
How blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.
                    —Poem inspired by Rumi

Although the soul, or Self, has no gender, our earthly personas are definitely wrapped around our gender roles. We have genetic memories of being in union with the One, and we long to go back to that state, but in our horizontal, three-dimensional plane, we seek to fulfill this mission of union through relationship. To understand gender and the sexual roles we play in our earthly bodies, we must look at the psychological archetypes representing our origins.

The psychologist C.G. Jung found that gender roles were socially differentiated. They represented the ego, or lower self, as opposed to the qualities of the higher Self, which are the alchemical combination of the inner feminine and masculine archetypes known as the anima and animus.

Anima is derived from a Latin word meaning current of air, wind, breath, the vital principle, life, soul. Jung’s use of this word differs from its Latin meaning. For him, anima refers to the unconscious feminine dimension of a male, which can often be forgotten or repressed in daily life. It is often manifested in traits such as vanity, moodiness, bitchiness, and touchiness. The man often lives out his anima by projection. He looks for his feminine counterpart to complete him, but in reality he is seeking the feminine within. As a result, he sees women only through his own projections.

;   NaardenThese alchemical images from the early modern era reflect the duality of masculine and feminine in the psyche. In the first image, the androgyne surmounts a base around which the caduceus is wrapped, symbolizing the integration of the subtle masculine and feminine energies that travel up and down the spine. Above the figure’s head is the astrological symbol for Mercury, which often represents the androgyne. In the second, a two-headed figure, again surmounted by the Mercury symbol, represents the integrated masculine and feminine energies. The figure is stepping on a dragon, indicating mastery of the prana or life force.

Animus in Latin means rational soul, life, mental powers, intelligence. Jung again uses it in a different way from its Latin meaning. For him, the animus is the unconscious masculine dimension in the female psyche. This masculine element can often be inhibited and suppressed. Again, it is often lived out in projections: a woman looks externally for the other to complete herself while in reality she is seeking the inner masculine. Sometimes she lives out the animus in such forms as mood disorders and overachieving.

We are constantly working with our own dual active and receptive qualities, even though we tend to project them outside ourselves. Nevertheless, in order to psychologically progress and reach greater internal balance and harmony, both men and women need to recognize and embrace the opposite gender in their own characters. By recognizing the inner image of the opposite sex within us, we can free ourselves from the trap of projections. We can finally learn to accept others of both genders as they are, and we can stop expecting them to fulfill our unconscious needs. We can integrate our own uniqueness and live out our own individual purpose without having to be augmented by the opposite sex. That does not mean avoiding partnership, but rather partnering from an individuated state of being rather than one of longing and need.

In our society, we often see females discovering the masculine qualities in their psyches, as well as males discovering their feminine qualities. We no longer have to be trapped by traditional gender roles, but can develop further understanding and balance if we bring those masculine-feminine qualities to the forefront and move toward androgyny. Androgyny, in Jungian terms, refers not to bisexuality but to the harmonious integration of male and female qualities in ourselves.

How do we see our projections, and realize that these are inner realities we are externalizing? How do we individuate, becoming more aware of our personal processes? How do we balance and connect the roles in our outer world with the masculine and feminine within? How is all of this connected to our esoteric and Theosophical studies?

Working with projections and images in dreams and fantasies, as well as meditation and contemplation, enables us to become more actualized and more responsible. By keeping a dream journal, we can see how we play out these roles and conditions in our dreams. As we evolve and become more aware, we start to see how we are living out these scenarios; we are also more able to cope with what they are showing us.

Evolving into our inner worlds may take repeated lifetimes of experiences in male or female roles, but eventually we move into a state of Oneness. As we do so, we further the evolution of both the horizontal, “earth” world and the “vertical,” cosmic world from which we originated.

Gwynne Mayer, M.A., is a retired psychotherapist and educator with forty-five years of experience in depth studies of world religions, ancient mysteries, esotericism, and divination.


Viewpoint: Getting Off Autopilot

Printed in the  Fall 2018  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation:  Hebert, Barbara"Viewpoint Getting Off Autopilot" Quest 106:4, pg 10-11

Barbara Hebert
National President

Barbara HebertGender continues to be discussed from a variety of perspectives: identity, roles, socialization, sexual orientation, stereotypes, feminism, patriarchy, dysphoria, harassment, assault, and so on. As we know from spiritual studies, the soul, or the higher aspect of ourselves, is not gendered, so conversations about gender inevitably revolve around the physical level. Regardless, the dialogue regarding gender issues allows us, and hopefully requires us, to deeply consider our perspectives as well as our societal conditioning.

We are all conditioned. It is a fact of human existence. Conditioning begins before we are born, it seems. We identify with ourselves (or the way we think we are supposed to be), with our ideas about values, morals, beliefs. J. Krishnamurti spoke about conditioning for many years.  During an interview he said:We are conditioned—physically, nervously, mentally—by the climate we live in and the food we eat, by the culture in which we live, by the whole of our social, religious and economic environment, by our experience, by education and by family pressures and influences. All these are the factors which condition us. Our conscious and unconscious responses to all the challenges of our environment—intellectual, emotional, outward and inward—all these are the action of conditioning. Language is conditioning; all thought is the action, the response of conditioning. (J. Krishnamurti, “The Urgency of Change,”, accessed June 27, 2018:

 Krishnamurti goes on to say that it is the personality, the impermanent “me,” that is conditioned. How often do we observe ourselves in order to attempt to identify some of our conditioning?

Spiritual traditions throughout time have encouraged self-observation. When we pay attention to what we are thinking, feeling, doing, and even imagining, we become the observer. We place ourselves outside of the “me” that is thinking, feeling, doing, and imagining. We can see ourselves more clearly and hopefully gain some sense of self-awareness. As we expand this self-awareness, we begin to gain control of ourselves. We can decide what to think, feel, do, and imagine. We realize we have choices, and in this realization we may feel a sense of power and direction in life.

In one respect, the observer is simply that—an observer. But beyond that, the observer is the authentic self—the real “I” that is looking out of these physical eyes and can watch what is happening. It is the higher aspect of ourselves; some may call it the Higher Self, while others may call it the soul or spirit, while still others may call it something different. In any case, there is no judgment in its observation. It is objective and detached.

An example of self-observation involves a young man who became very angry about a situation at work. He walked outside of the office building and began to vent his anger. While this was happening, he heard a small voice in his head that said, “You are so angry. You haven’t been this angry since you were a kid.” At that point, even though he still felt angry, he realized that there was a part of him that was simply observing the anger. The observer was not feeling it or being caught up in it, but was simply watching it. There was no judgment in the statement the young man heard in his head. The awareness that came about through this observation deescalated his anger almost immediately. It gave him the power to choose his response to the situation and to realize that he was more than the feeling he was experiencing. It was a significant experience in this young man’s life.

Self-observation is helpful in many other ways as well. Often we live in a state of autopilot. Airline pilots can put a plane on autopilot so that it is flying itself, and there are now self-driving cars that can maneuver on their own. Likewise, many individuals live their lives on autopilot. There is no one in control; there is no thought involved; everything simply follows the established pattern. If I am on autopilot, I get up in the morning and do the things I typically do without giving thought to much of anything throughout the day. I simply live my life automatically.

But if I’m observing myself, then I am no longer on autopilot. I am piloting the vehicle (otherwise known as my brain or my body) and making conscious choices and decisions. Self-observation moves us away from autopilot. It can help us determine when our beliefs and our behavior are not in alignment. For instance, if I believe in the mission of the Theosophical Society in America (open-minded inquiry, respect for the unity of all life, and spiritual self-transformation) but I refuse to expand my understanding of a specific idea or tradition, then my beliefs and my behavior are not in alignment. On autopilot, I may decide that expanding my insight into Buddhist meditation by taking a special class is not useful because I don’t have time. I feel like I “should” be taking the class, but quickly say no to it. When I move away from this nonthinking stance, I may decide that meditation is extremely useful and worth finding time for in a busy schedule.

Furthermore, self-observation can help when the words we say or the facial expressions we show are out of alignment with the way we truly feel. An example of this situation is a time when I might be smiling and acting as if there is no problem, but I’m really feeling very sad. My autopilot has me smiling, while my authentic self would observe that this is not the reality of my feeling.

For these, along with many other reasons, self-observation is an important component of growth and development, both personally and spiritually. Observing the self may also help us to look at the larger choices and decisions we are making in life. We may find that some of these are not really in our best interest. An illustration involves a young woman who is in a relationship. Her partner is extremely critical, and the young woman often feels belittled. This young woman can continue in the relationship on autopilot, simply accepting the behavior of her partner without any thought. Or, if she observes herself and her feelings, she may realize that the relationship is not helpful to her. At that point, she may decide to talk with her partner and attempt to change things in the relationship, or even leave. In any event, once she has become aware of the situation, she can make choices for herself. Clearly self-observation is a valuable tool for freeing ourselves of our conditioning.

With gender too, it is evident that we must observe ourselves, become aware of our conditioning, and move our beliefs and behavior into alignment. What thoughts, feelings, and behavior do we display concerning gender that are a part of our conditioning? Are we on autopilot when it comes to these issues? Are we observing ourselves, our responses, and our reactions to the various components of gender? This is the real work that must be accomplished. We need to exercise self-observation and self-awareness in relation to gender issues so that we are making conscious choices and decisions about our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

From Theosophical teachings, we know that the highest aspect of ourselves, regardless of what we call it, is not gendered. There is no duality, no division, in those realms of consciousness. It is here, in the physical realm, that we need to explore the complexities of gender with self-awareness and with as much detachment from our conditioning as possible. Aligning our beliefs and our behavior through continuous and objective self-observation—becoming the observer—plays a significant role in our spiritual growth.

Buddhism beyond Gender

Printed in the  Fall 2018  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation:  Gross, Rita M., "A Stranger No More: A Journey through Mormonism" Quest 106:4, pg 29-34

Can Buddhist practice go beyond male and female identities? A feminist and dharma teacher reflects on gender-based thinking as an obstacle to enlightenment.

By Rita M. Gross

What does freedom from the prison of gender roles look like? Some deny that such roles are a prison, arguing that they are simply accurate descriptions of men and women, or try to construct a better, fairer set of gender roles, or try to elevate “femininity” into parity with “masculinity.” But these alternatives will still be prisons for some. It is not possible to free people from the prison of gender roles by proposing a different grand plan that should work for everyone, which has been the solution most often proposed to date. That simply will not work. As with issues of religious diversity, people are simply too distinctive for one system to be universally appropriate or applicable.

We could, then, simply admit there is no one grand solution. In a society free of the prison of gender roles, there will not be much uniformity about what people do with their sexed bodies. All the relevant ethical options for utilizing the “precious human birth” that Buddhists love to talk about will be available to all, whatever their sexed bodies may look like, whether or not those bodies were born with their current sexual equipment. What else could it possibly mean to talk about enlightened mind beyond gender, neither male nor female? If every sexed body is forced into the gender role deemed appropriate for it, how could anyone ever break free to a state of mind that is no longer obsessed with gender roles and no longer clings to them, either to their own perceived roles or those of others?

It’s quite simple. If the problem is clinging to the conventional given set of gender roles, the solution cannot be imposing a different, “new and improved” set of roles. That would simply be clinging to a different set of conventions. But if we give up clinging to gender identity, there is no longer anything inside or outside of oneself that compels someone to be or feel a certain way because of the shape of one’s body.

For Buddhists, clinging is always what causes suffering. Thus, while different visionaries may have different worthy ideas about better ways to organize society and male-female relationships, we all need to remember not to absolutize our relative solutions and suggestions. Feminists are just as guilty of forgetting this requirement as anyone else. Clinging to a feminist set of ideas about gender subverts enlightenment just as much as clinging to any other set of gender roles would be.

It’s not the content of these roles that is all that bad. Neither “men’s work” nor “women’s work” is inherently dehumanizing or to be avoided. The dehumanizing happens when the specific task is linked with either men or women. Cooking can be skilled and interesting work, and it has to be done. I enjoy it sometimes. But I would resent being required to do it three times a day every day of the year for the men and children I’m supposed to take care of just because I have a female body. Nor would I want to be forced to enter military service if I had a male body, or to be prohibited from it because I am a woman. As an adult, I willingly dust my many beautiful antique lamps, even though I dreaded being condemned to a life of dusting lamps when I was a girl. To cite another example, I now type quite well, but when I was a young woman I made sure that I didn’t type too well; otherwise I would have been forced into a secretarial role. But now that computers are so omnipresent, men have to be able to type as well.

I’ve spent my entire life in a “male” field, a field so “male” that when I entered it, more women had Ph.D.s in physics than in religious studies. (Physics was then labeled a “male” field.) When I entered the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, twelve of the four hundred students were women, and the professors were horrified. “What are we going to do with all those women who now want to study religion?” they asked. Some of them changed the content of their lectures because of the presence of women in the classroom.

Nevertheless, this “male” field suits me perfectly. It and my female body get along quite well. The “male” role of dharma teaching suits me even better. Am I more male or female? Who knows? Who cares? I’ve often been told I’m too masculine for a woman, which usually means I’m too confident, competent, and successful. Or I’m told that I have a male mind and a female body! That comment strikes me as quite ridiculous. My vagina marks my body as female, but how can a mind be either male or female? It seems increasingly ridiculous to label anything except penises or vaginas male or female, or to assume anything about what goes with either of them.

All these examples demonstrate the difference between being gendered—being male or female—and the prison of gender roles. Being gendered does not subvert enlightenment, but clinging to gender identity does. Such a conclusion should not surprise anyone even with modest Buddhist knowledge. The second of the Noble Truths tells us that clinging is the cause of our suffering. How could it be different when we are fixated on what the shape of our bodies must mean or how it must limit us, or when we cling to gender identity so strongly that we are willing to limit what others with differently shaped bodies can do in the name of dharma? Our clinging to our notions of gender can cause us suffering, but it can also cause others to suffer—something that should bother any Buddhist committed to Buddhist ethics.

Whenever I have proposed such freedom from the prison of gender roles and someone argues in response, “But men and women are different! That has to mean something! There have to be limits!” usually that argument is coming from a man trying to preserve some arena of male privilege. Men and women are different! What does that mean? Women and women, men and men, are also different! All women are not the same as all other women, and all men are not the same as all other men—a fact that is never taken into account by those arguing on behalf of definite gender roles. For myself, I accept that biologically I am a woman, a fact that is readily obvious to others. But as I’ve already said, that doesn’t give you much reliable information about me. So stop projecting your version of the gender role onto me. Recognize, as the Buddha taught, that such thoughts are not really “you” or “yours,” so stop identifying with them. Abandoning them would be for the “welfare and happiness” of both self and other.

Some will ask, “But isn’t there something we can prescribe, some rules we can insist upon?” I would answer that question in the affirmative. The relevant question to ask of any option or set of practices is whether or not it promotes everyone’s ability to recognize that natural state of mind that is beyond gender, that is not bound by relative references. Practices, whether social or individual, that do not should be abandoned. There may be some guidelines about that, but they do not involve gender roles specific to biological males and females. Discipline and deep contemplation will be necessary. Renunciation of many things valued in the conventional world of “ordinary worldlings” will be necessary. But dividing people into groups based on biological sex has never proved to promote discipline, contemplation, or renunciation for biological women or men. Nor does dividing people into groups, some of which are defined as servants of other groups, whose only role is to take care of them, promote recognition of the natural, enlightened state of mind beyond gender. If Buddhists want to be serious about the purported enlightened state of mind, beyond gender, neither male nor female, then I suggest we have to stop advocating any version of the prison of gender roles.

Some may still be uncomfortable and may want more precise, detailed rules governing gender-specific behavior and interactions between women and men. How will people know how to behave if they don’t have clear rules? Won’t we have too much disorder if we don’t have precise, specific rules? But how to prevent a set of rules specific for each sex and their interactions from degenerating into a prison? It seems to me that would be a difficult, if not impossible, task. Additionally, I would suggest that we Buddhists already have all the guidelines we need in the form of the Eightfold Path and the basic precepts. The guidelines are exactly the same for each gender. Don’t harm. Don’t misuse sexuality, using it in ways that harm self or other. What more do we need?

Predictably, whenever someone suggests that it would be good dharma practice to stop promoting any version of the prison of gender roles, someone will complain that such a proposal “genderizes the dharma” and makes a big deal out of gender. It leaves me shaking my head in incredulity. How can making gender less determinative in Buddhist life and institutions be genderizing the dharma? I would have thought that relying on gender to determine, for example, which people, women or men, can become monastics would be genderizing the dharma. Or I would have thought that practices such as giving even the most junior monk precedence over the most senior nun is genderizing the dharma. Such practices make an irrelevant factor—one’s sex—the criterion for taking on roles and practices that are valued in Buddhism, while at the same time ignoring much more relevant factors, such as seniority or fitness for the monastic lifestyle. Isn’t that making a big deal out of gender?

I have often been accused of genderizing the dharma for doing nothing more than pointing out how genderized the dharma already is. One can only reply that dharma became genderized when one’s sex became a determining factor in what one could or couldn’t do in terms of dharma practice. Those of us who point out such things had nothing to do with genderizing the dharma! In fact, if the suggestions we put forward were taken seriously, dharma would be far less gendered. The way to stop genderizing the dharma is to stop treating men and women so differently! That so many prominent, well-known teachers with a great deal of authority have such difficulty grasping this simple point demonstrates how unreflective and conventional they have become. In studying the self and accomplishing the way of enlightenment, it is crucial to remember that the samsaric ego binds us by convincing us that what we do habitually is truly “ours” and can be trusted.

Many commentators worry that women who point out how genderized dharma already is and would like dharma to be less genderized have an “ego problem” and that therefore our dharmic well-being is in serious jeopardy. Their solution is that we should not object to the prison of gender roles that is already in place; we should just pay more attention to our dharma practice. After all, we are reminded again, enlightened mind is beyond gender, neither male nor female. But since when is it more dharmic, more demonstrative of some realization, to acquiesce mindlessly to an inappropriate status quo than it is to use the prajna, the finely honed, detached intellect that practice brings, to improve the dharmic situation for everyone, male as well as female? Perhaps the clarity with which we see that the prison of gender roles is dharmically inappropriate is evidence that we have some acquaintance with that nongendered, awakened state of mind! Because we have taken bodhisattva vows and wish to help others, we wish to dismantle practices that obviously are of no help to anyone, female or male, who wishes to study the self and attain the way of enlightenment. It would be impossible to demonstrate that gender hierarchies help male practitioners study the self and attain the way of enlightenment, but it is quite easy to demonstrate that they hinder women greatly.

I find it amusing that the same commentators who worry about women damaging their dharma practice by not acquiescing to the status quo have no similar worries about men who argue vociferously for retaining their gender privilege. If women who don’t accept a status quo have an ego problem, why don’t men who defend that same status quo also have an ego problem? Insofar as the status quo gives them advantages, one would think that men would be in greater danger of lapsing into egoistic self-grasping.

I once heard a story about a female student who asked a female teacher if it was true that a senior nun had to bow down even to a baby monk. The teacher replied that if a woman experienced difficulty bowing to a male baby, she definitely had an ego problem. No problems so far, and this student may have needed a bit of a dharmic slap from a teacher. But problems remain. Why aren’t men expected to bow to girls under similar circumstances? Are there even any such circumstances? The double standard is the problem, not asking women to bow to men when appropriate. Any woman who couldn’t is definitely out of line.

Buddhists defending the status quo often cite karma as the reason why no one should object to current conditions or try to improve that situation in the future. Teachings on karma are at the heart of the Buddhist understanding of the world and are considered to be nonnegotiable by all teachers. One cannot deny that there is karma and still be Buddhist. Karma, dependent arising, is a difficult topic, often seriously misunderstood and misused. The most prevalent misunderstanding is that karma involves unalterable fate to which one is subject and about which nothing can be done. Teachings on karma are sometimes said to be about cause and effect, but when I teach about dependent arising, I often suggest that it is much more appropriate to think of karma as being about “effect and cause.” This difference is subtle but important. Any present situation is as it is; it is an effect and obviously cannot be altered. But what one does with this present situation is not predetermined. What one does with the present is the cause that helps determine future outcomes. The key point in Buddhist discipline is to work wisely and proactively with present circumstances so as to alleviate difficulties in the future. Because we Buddhists have inherited a situation of male-dominated institutions does not mean that is the way things should be, or that things should stay that way.

While individuals can take personal comfort in teachings about karma when confronting difficult circumstances, and they can take responsibility for their part in bringing about the present situation, such teachings are easily misused, especially when directed at others to justify their present suffering—as in saying, “It’s your karma to be poor, to be abused, to be subjected to male dominance, so just submit to it.” It is common to misuse teachings about karma to discourage people who live in difficult circumstances from trying to change their situations, claiming instead that they should just accept these situations because they are appropriate and are something they “created” themselves. Certainly teachings on karma have been used in this way to reconcile women to male dominance by claiming that to be born female in a male-dominated system is the result of “karma.” So rather than trying to change the system, one should submit to it, hoping to be reborn as a male in a future life.

Thus privilege is claimed to be the result of karma and, as such, appropriate, even justified. But privilege involves a hierarchy in which others are less well off in some way. Some are “up,” while others are “down.” Often the “up” status of some is directly dependent on the “down” status of others. Traditional Buddhist thought usually finds that situation unproblematic. So, in fact, does much non-Buddhist thought. In many situations of interdependent hierarchies, for some to have privilege, others must be underprivileged. But those who are on top feel strongly that they have “earned” their privileged status and “deserve” it. Such claims are especially strong regarding hierarchies of wealth and privilege. Even more problematically, people who inherit advantageous circumstances sometimes fail to recognize that they are privileged. But one could also think quite differently about this dynamic. If one uses one’s privileged status to oppress others, would that not create negative karma for oneself, using traditional ways of talking about and understanding karma? So if one is on the “up” side of a hierarchy, what does that mean about how one should behave?

Among some social critics, including many feminists, hierarchy is regarded negatively. However, some hierarchy is required in Buddhism. Liberating Buddhist teachings are subtle and cannot be subjected to acceptance by popular acclaim. The historical Buddha hesitated to teach what he had understood during his enlightenment because it is not what most people want to hear. Therefore teachers cannot be elected, and there must be a hierarchy between those who understand the teachings more well and less well. That kind of hierarchy is not a problem. The problem is arbitrary hierarchies, those based on criteria irrelevant to the task at hand. Obviously men have no real advantage over women when it comes to being able to understand the dharma and teach it well. Nonetheless, throughout Buddhist history, men have monopolized roles of dharma teaching. Recognition as a teacher is not necessarily the same thing as deep realization of the awakened state of mind. Probably there have been many unrecognized, unacknowledged teachers throughout Buddhist history. But that situation is to no one’s benefit. Thus, from my earliest days as a dharma student, I have insisted that the acid test of whether Buddhism has transcended its historical male dominance for something more appropriate is whether or not approximately half the dharma teachers are women.

Some Buddhist circles discourage any critical inquiry into current events. Students are made to feel guilty about their interest in things such as engaged Buddhist movements. It is claimed that such concerns cannot help anyway but instead compromise one’s meditation practice. One of the arguments is that because social problems are intractable, they cannot be solved, leading to frustration, depression, and anger, all attitudes at odds with the enlightened mind. Alternatively, it is argued, one cannot avoid developing attachment if one tries to promote social reform or any kind of social betterment. And attachment, also known as clinging, is even more problematic than anger or depression for one seeking the way of enlightenment. So better just to focus on one’s own practice.

These warnings have genuine validity. Students still in training who also become involved in one cause or another often do develop all the tendencies listed above. They easily fall prey to emotionalism. In the West, language of justice and rights, terms not easily found in more traditional Buddhism, is common and has often been influential in the earlier formation of those newer to Buddhist practice. Such students often develop strong ideologies about their causes and become quite opinionated.

For a dharma teacher, such students can be challenging to work with. Opinionatedness and ideology are discouraged in meditation students for the practical reason that they solve nothing and only make the situation worse for both the student herself and those about whom she is concerned. It is difficult to watch someone be in as much pain as the newer student who is still entangled in overly emotional concern with some cause. Yet there is also a lot of good heart and some wisdom in the student’s passionate involvement. What will the outcome be? Some teachers recommend, even insist, that the student renounce her concern for anything other than dharma and, perhaps, her own everyday life. Great skill on the teacher’s part is required at this point. In trying to tame the student’s ideology, one does not want to veer into promoting apathy, which is also not appropriate dharmic advice.

Given Buddhism’s emphasis on the problems with attachment and the virtues of detachment, outsiders often think that Buddhism must promote apathy. But apathy easily falls into the category of one of the “poisons of emptiness,” mistakes often made by students who have some insight into emptiness. This mistake often takes the form of saying something like “Because everything is empty, nothing matters, so I can do whatever I want or not take responsible action.” One must be careful not to promote the incorrect assumption that the only alternatives are either ideological, angry entanglement in a cause or withdrawal from involvement into apathy or indifference.

Practice, however, provides a middle path between angry ideology and apathetic withdrawal. This is one of the most useful contributions Buddhist disciplines can make to contemporary discussions. The language of “self-righteous anger” is deeply entrenched in Western discourse on social issues, and many otherwise competent and wise thinkers remain plagued by it for many years, in some cases even after they have acquaintance with Buddhist thought and practice. Often they still fear that the only alternative is apathy. They still fear dualism—if I’m not this, I’ll be that. Unless I’m angry, I won’t care at all.

From the other side, some Buddhists find it difficult, especially when they disagree with someone about a controversial issue, to recognize that it is possible to hold a viewpoint and yet not be angry or ideological, that a viewpoint can be held with equanimity. Penetrating insight undoes both apathy and attachment with one blow of Manjushri’s sword. This should not be surprising. Enlightened mind beyond gender is not a blank state of mind. It is intelligent but without ideology. Because it recognizes that its verbalizations of insight can never be fully adequate, it holds them lightly. Therefore it is completely flexible. The verbalization of insight will change without struggle when further information and better reasoning make such change appropriate. But insight is also fearless and fully able to respond to attack and confrontation with equanimity, and to stand its own ground without resort to aggression.

I have discovered this dynamic many times in my presentations of Buddhist feminism. Sometimes others insist that my only motivation for not supporting male dominance must be that I am angry. But those days are long over. What I have often found is that those who dislike my feminism think I should automatically defer to them, I suppose because they are so used to having women defer to them. When I don’t, they become extremely angry.

In one notable encounter, a man demanded in an aggressive and authoritative manner that I give in to his position, which was that generic masculine language in Buddhist liturgies was not a problem. He was not at all willing to rationally discuss the issues I was bringing up. Instead, he did his best to egg me into an angry response to him. Then he would be justified in simply rejecting me and my position: “See! I told you she’s just an angry feminist bitch!” But I didn’t take the bait, demonstrating both steadfastness and equanimity. Eventually he caved in and said that he wanted to discuss the points I was making. After several hours of discussion he conceded, “You’re right!” The next day he announced to those assembled for a large dharma program that if they preferred to change the language of an important text from generic masculine to gender-inclusive and neutral language, that was acceptable.

Would it not have been much simpler to discuss the issues from the beginning instead of asserting male privilege and dominance? It takes a good bit of training neither to become angry (thus losing the discussion by default) nor to simply give in because that’s what women are trained to do when men assert male dominance.

Need I report that this confrontation involved a male Buddhist teacher whose position in the teaching hierarchy was higher than mine? I tell this story to demonstrate that insight paired with equanimity can be far more effective than anger when faced with aggression. I also tell this story to illustrate that giving up on anger as the fuel that maintains one’s sense of urgency about something that needs to be changed does not mean that one becomes apathetic and just gives in to convention and the status quo.

So, in the final analysis, what does freedom from the prison of gender roles look like? It has nothing to do with whether one is a man or a woman, or even whether one lives a more traditional or a more radical lifestyle. It has everything to do with one’s state of mind. Is it starting to approach that enlightened state of mind, which is beyond gender? If so, it will not be characterized by anger and will not strongly hold any ideology. One’s mind will be utterly flexible and will dwell easily in equanimity, but it will not confuse equanimity with apathy. The mind state of someone who insists that male dominance and the prison of gender roles in any of its forms are unproblematic doesn’t qualify. She or he still holds an ideology. Nor would holding a “feminist” position necessarily mean that one is approaching that freer state of mind. It depends on the flexibility and ease of his or her state of mind. Whatever one comes up with, one holds that position and that identity lightly. Its relative character is clearly recognized. It is not made into an ultimate. If one has truly studied the self, then one can forget it, and relax.

Rita M. Gross (1943̶ 2015) was professor emerita of comparative studies in religion at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. She was also a Vajrayana Buddhist practitioner and teacher. She was the author of eleven books, including Buddhism beyond Patriarchy.

This article has been adapted from Buddhism beyond Gender by Rita M. Gross; © 2018 by the Estate of Rita M. Gross. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, Colorado.

From the Editor’s Desk

Printed in the  Fall 2018  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation:  Smoley, Richard., "From the Editor’s Desk" Quest 106:4, pg 2

Richard SmoleyIn his article for this issue, Jay Kinney uses a funny word: essentialist. What could it possibly mean? The belief in essentials? The opposite of existentialism?

The answer to both is yes, but the term has come to have a very specific meaning, and it’s not a nice one. It’s often used in feminist discourse to describe the long-held views that women possess certain essential and universal characteristics, such as caring, nurturing, mothering, and so on.

These seem to be good things, so why is essentialism bad? Because (as the theory goes) it is simply a set of assumptions that have been long held about women. It has little or no intrinsic truth, but is simply a matter of cultural enforcement. It is a dogma that has been used throughout history to relegate women to second-class status.

Even from this brief introduction, it’s obvious that we are again confronted with the great debate about nature versus nurture. Essentialism would claim that there are certain characteristics—including gender characteristics—that we are born with; there is no getting rid of them. The opposite view holds that virtually all gender characteristics have been imposed by society on the infant, which, as John Locke argued, is a tabula rasa—a blank slate.

Certainly cultural norms do dictate gender roles in many respects. All the same, I find it too extreme to attribute the characters of men and women solely to cultural accretions. Sometimes, in fact, it appears that gender differences are too easily blurred, and what is true for one sex may not be true for another.

Joseph Campbell famously wrote about the hero’s journey, and many have assumed that the heroine’s journey is more or less identical except for some changes in pronouns. But as Campbell himself noted, this is essentially a man’s journey: departure from home, heroic quest and deed, return to home in triumph. In her insightful book Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story, Jody Gentian Bower explores a feminine equivalent: what she calls the myth of the Aletis (from the Greek alētēs, or wanderer), the wandering heroine. “The Aletis is not a hero,” Gentian writes. In fact she is almost the diametric opposite of the hero. “The heroic quest is a circle back to home,” for example, but “the Aletis wanders, moving on again and again, . . . before finding or creating her true home somewhere altogether new” (emphasis Bower’s).

Along the same lines, I think that the emotional life of the male has been misunderstood by seeing it too much in the light of feminine emotion. The male is stereotypically rational, the female stereotypically emotional, so, it is assumed, men often do not have access to their emotions. But I think this is not entirely correct. Instead, I would say, male emotions are not fundamentally relational, as they appear to be for women (of course I am talking in generalities here). Masculine emotions seem to have much more to do with allegiance.

We can easily see allegiance in its positive sense: the medieval knight’s allegiance to the chivalric ideal; the soldier’s to his flag or monarch; even the company man’s allegiance to his corporation. Most of these involve standards of conduct that are praiseworthy: loyalty, reliability, honor, duty.

Of course there are also negative aspects to emotional allegiance. A man can have just as much dedication to a false ideal as to a good one, or his dedication to his ideal may crush all other virtues. In Heinrich von Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaas, the title character’s search for justice deteriorates into vengeance. Fanaticism is a result of aberrant allegiance.

Today there is a great deal of material on the distorted ideal of the male in American culture. Supposedly many men cannot express their emotions, or can only express them in negative ways. No doubt this is true to some extent. But if you look deeper, you can see that in many cases, men’s emotions are not seen (by themselves or others) because they do not look like women’s emotions. Even when men are genuinely isolated from their emotions, it is still a question of allegiance—here to an ideal, however mistaken or constricted, of the stoic, imperturbable male.

Thus, I think, a great deal of damage has been done by facile assumptions that men’s and women’s spiritual journeys are the same or that their emotions are the same. Further damage has been done by the assumption that all roles are inherently repressive. Many people free themselves from conventional roles (including those of gender) only to feel themselves straying and rootless. Or they are simply put in a catchall category of the “weird” or the “nonconformist.” These of course are just roles too, and are equally unlikely to enable others to embrace a person’s true self.

As Barbara Hebert points out in this issue’s “Viewpoint,” liberation from roles and identities is possible, but it does not come by refusing them or rebelling against them. It comes from the realization that we are not our roles. As a matter of fact, we are not our bodies either, no matter what sex we ascribe to them.

Richard Smoley

A Stranger No More: A Journey through Mormonism

Printed in the  Fall 2018  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Goldsberry, Clare, "A Stranger No More: A Journey through Mormonism" Quest 106:4, pg 14-17 

By Clare Goldsberry

Claire GoldsberryWhen I announced to the pastor of my Disciples of Christ (Christian) Church that I was marrying a Mormon man, he looked only mildly surprised. “Well, I guess you’ll be joining the Mormon Church.”

 “Oh, no,” I protested. “I’m happy in the Disciples Church.”

 “You have too many questions,” he said,“and the Mormons have all the answers.”

What my pastor meant was that Mormons have truth claims that answer all the big questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? They claim to have the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and of the restoration of the True Church established by Jesus, an idea that was popular during the Second Great Awakening (ca. 1796̶-835), when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Mormon church—was established.

At age twenty-one, I was at a point in my life when the words truth and true church sounded appealing. After all, aren’t we all searching for the truth? Marrying a Mormon seemed to be a door to that path. I did join the Mormon church, as my pastor had predicted, and embraced its doctrines and dogmas for almost ten years, even though many seemed strange to someone who’d been reared as a mainstream Christian. But it was made easier by moving to a small town north of Salt Lake City, Utah, where my then-husband had been reared.

This was the beginning of a spiritual path that would lead me to a greater understanding of religion as doctrines, dogmas, and organizations. My membership in the Mormon church would teach me the difference between legalism and love and would give me a better theology education than I could have ever gained in divinity school (my aspiration prior to marrying).

I tried being a good Mormon, and for a few years I succeeded. I soon realized my goal of being “sealed for time and all eternity” to my husband and our children in one of the church’s magnificent temples. But to obtain the all-important “Temple Recommend” required obeying the Word of Wisdom given by Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith: being a good Mormon generally and participating in the life of the church; abstaining from tea, coffee, tobacco, and alcohol; and paying a “full” tithing—10 percent of one’s gross income.This was tracked each year during “Tithing Settlement”: each December you met with the bishop and wereasked to declare that you had paid a full tithing. You were given the opportunity to write a check at that time if you had not.

I took part in the temple ceremony in a large, elaborately decorated room filled with a hundred others. Some were there to receive their own “endowments” (as these initiations are called), while others received endowments in proxy for people who had died and whose relatives had submitted their names for this purpose. The women, dressed in long white dresses, sat on one side, and the men, dressed in white suits, sat on the other.

The movie shown to us (it used to be a play performed by live actors) contained the story of the formation of the True Church of Jesus Christ. It portrayed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as well as their expulsion. I found some parts of the movie offensive, such as the portrayal of the disciples of Jesus and modern-day pastors as agents of Satan. (I’ve since heard that some of portions of the movie have been removed; probably I was not the only one who was offended.) At various stages, the movie was stopped, and we all took three sacred vows, each one having a horrible, bloody consequence if we were to ever violate it or reveal what we were learning in the temple. (I’ve heard that these have been changed as well, but I cannot confirm that.)

Being a good Mormon was easy, because the rules of life were laid out for me. All I had to do was follow them—unquestioningly. Many people like rules and the certainty that comes with rigid, legalistic religions, and for several years I enjoyed the box that kept me safe from the uncertainties of life. Most of my friends were comfortable with the legalistic doctrines of Mormonism, but then most had been born into the church. As a convert I was considered special—perhaps because my acceptance of their religion validated their own beliefs that theirs was the true church. But soon I began to chafe at the confinement, not because I needed more freedom to do as I pleased, but because I began to see the harm that a legalistic religion could do.

While the rules are designed to help ensure that individuals adhere to Mormon doctrines, I soon discovered that they also were used as a yardstick by which to measure the compliance of their neighbors and judge their actions. An elderly neighbor of mine who drank a cup of coffee every morning lived in fear that she would be found out by the bishopric of the ward. (A ward is the Mormon name for an individual congregation.) Each morning, no matter what the temperature, she would make her cup of coffee, then open all the windows to air out her house so that no one could smell the coffee, especially the bishop if he happened to drop by. In Mormonism, waking up and smelling the coffee is not something you want to do!

Members who were not following the strict rules of the church often found themselves on the outside. If not fully excommunicated, they were disfellowshipped, or placed on the outside, until they could once again follow all of the church’s rules. I happened to run into a member of my ward  in the grocery store one day. She noticed that I had seen the six-pack of beer in her cart, and quickly apologized to me for the fact that her husband—a church member—did not keep the Word of Wisdom.

“He’s really trying to get back into the church,” she assured me, as if I was the one that was judging her husband. I had no interest in judging anyone and was often reminded of the New Testament scripture “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Yet in a community in which around 95 percent of the people were Mormons, it was difficult to avoid being judged by someone. It was like living in a glass house, and there were plenty of people to throw stones.

Those who were not perfect “saints” in the Mormon tradition were not treated very well, which caused me to review my Christian upbringing. Mormons do not refer to themselves as Christians (something I was taught very early in my church membership), nor did many of those in the community know their Bible very well. Most of the emphasis was placed on the Book of Mormon. Odd, given that they call themselves “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Being under the microscope of the ward bishopric meant that members were accountable to the bishop or one of his two counselors for everything. One was expected to consult with the bishop in matters that in secular life would be considered private and personal choices, such as how many children to have. We women of childbearing age were expected to have children. It was a duty to bring spirits from heaven to obtain bodies, and it was taken very seriously. At one point, after my husband and I decided not to have any more children (I had four), I was called into the bishop’s office to explain why, since it had been several years since my youngest child was born. He certainly didn’t like the answer I gave him and warned me of my obligation to bring spirit children from heaven as “Heavenly Father” had taught us to do.

Much of this belief originates in the well-known statement made by Lorenzo Snow, the fifth president of the Mormon Church: “As man is now, God once was; as God is now, man may be.” Mormons believe that human males may become gods and rule over their own worlds, having numerous wives with whom to have “spirit” children to populate these other worlds with human beings. Whether or not Snow’s statement is church doctrine has long been disputed, but it is taught often enough.

After about eight years, I began stepping back from the church. I am a strong-willed person with my own mind-set, and my husband didn’t object, even though the bishop told him that he needed to rein me in. After all, in Mormon doctrine “husbands are the saviors of their wives.” I knew the consequences for us as a family of trying to remove myself from Mormonism. My children would be ostracized (and they were), and my friends in the ward would be told not to associate with me, as I was a danger to their faith.

The final straw was when the bishop called me in for another face-to-face meeting and asked me when I was going to quit my job and be a good mother. He also asked me when was I was going to quit writing articles for The Salt Lake Tribune about women’s issues. I was finished.

My husband got a job in Phoenix, Arizona, and we moved out of the fishbowl. It was there that I met my Waterloo with the church. I’d learned of a young woman with several children whose husband had divorced her, leaving her in a bad way financially. She’d met a wonderful man—not a Mormon—who’d begun providing for her and her children, and she’d been sleeping with him.

The bishop and his counselors had found out about this, because the young woman had been feeling guilty about the liaison and confessed this to her “home teachers”—men of goodstanding in the church who are given several families to call on each month to ensure that things are well. They informed the bishop, and she had been called to attend a council to disfellowship her. I went to visit her to comfort her, and I told her that God loved her no matter what. “The church might throw you out, but with God, you’re never out,” I said.

That too, got back to the bishop, because again she felt guilty about my visit with her. A few days later he knocked at my door and served me with papers to excommunicate me for “preaching false doctrine.” It was an official citation that called me to a hearing with seven members of the bishop’s council. I accepted the papers, telling him that as long as the citation meant no points off my driver’s license, I was OK with it. I laughed, thinking it was rather funny, but the bishop didn’t see the humor in it.

A few weeks later, I was brought up before these seven men in a church court, and my fate within Mormonism was to be decided. It was obvious what that fate was, but I was beyond caring. I challenged them with my “Sixteen Theses,” outlining why I felt that Mormonism was not a Christian religion. It was based on my many years of study and knowledge of the Scriptures. I wasn’t going to let these men have the last word where my spirituality was concerned. First, I said, it is the purpose of religion to serve the people, and to provide a vehicle by which people serve their God. When people begin serving the religion for the sake of the “church,” then Christianity has been lost. Also, when religion becomes a whip to be used to ensure obedience to the law, it is useless. Christ came to fulfill the law of the Old Testament, and usher in the new law—that of love. When rules are more important than love, Christianity has been lost.

I think some of them found it all rather amusing—as did I. My excommunication taught me that there are some dangers in being a spiritual seeker—including the belief that those in authority somehow have a truth to which I don’t have access. That isn’t the case. All the truth resides within our own hearts and souls, waiting to be discovered, waiting for the veil to be lifted from our eyes and the illusions revealed.

Even so, there is something reassuring in being dedicated to a strict dogma or to absolute doctrine. I’ve often thought that people like the Mormons, who believe without doubt that theirs is the only true church, may be more content with their absolutes that we who are spiritual seekers. But there is a big price to pay for that comfort, and that price is giving up one’s free will, relinquishing the freedom to seek, knock, and find one’s personal truth behind the door of one’s own heart.

In a speech given in the 1980s, Spencer W. Kimball, the Prophet, Seer, Revelator, and President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1973 to 1985,stated something that should strikefear into the heart of every spiritual seeker: “When the Prophet speaks, the thinking has been done.”

All my life I’d done nothing but ask questions—of my Sunday-school teachers, preachers, and anyone who would sit and discuss theology with me. Questions were my life’s sustenance, and I knew that the questions were always more important than the answers. I learned that once one had the answers the path ended, most of the time prematurely. There is always more, because the truth is never found in just one place outside of oneself. There are always more teachers to hear, more books to read, and more questions to ask, and that’s not a bad thing. But ultimately the truth can only be found within.

In his book AWestern Approach to Zen,Christmas Humphreys says that the meditator (and here I’d like to substitute the words spiritual seeker) “must find his own way, and as soon as possible realize that the only true teacher is within.”

As I wrote for Quest in June 2005,

To accept the exclusive truth of a particular religious organization as the ultimate truth is to cut ourselves off from seeking our personal truth; it is blind faith—faith that refuses to look beyond the boundaries set up by the religious organization; faith that rejects personal inquiry and follows blindly dictated truth, which isn’t truth after all. . . Seeking personal truth often involves learning to question all we have been told, and not being afraid of the answers we might find.

Finding one’s personal truth always has to do with a calling that is uniquely our own that comes from the inside out, not from a bishop, a rabbi, a guru, or any other person. It comes from within ourselves when we are called to travel a path in which we can best learn who we are and the purpose of our lives on this earth.

The motto of the Theosophical Society, “There is no religion higher than truth,” gave me the strength to continue my personal quest as a spiritual seeker and never to be content with anything less than the truth from the Source within. Supported by J. Krishnamurti’s statement “Truth is a pathless land,” I can gladly walk on, quoting a bumper sticker I once saw: “Just because I wander doesn’t mean I’m lost.” I’ve truly become a stranger no more.

Clare Goldsberry is a professional freelance writer and volunteer with RISE, a continuing education program for older adults on Eastern philosophies, the Ageless Wisdom, Gnosticism, and the Kabbalah. This article is adapted from A Stranger in Zion, her memoir of her years as a Mormon housewife. She is a member of the TS’s Phoenix Study Group.